Presumably it wasn’t just her worldwide profile that saw Lance Armstrong agree to sit down with Oprah Winfrey next Thursday for his first set-piece interview since his official fall into disgrace.
There is also the memory of the last interview he did with the goddess of American chat, way back in 2004, when Winfrey managed to get through an inordinate amount of time with the then six-times Tour de France winner without once mentioning performance-enhancing drugs. Quite a feat, that. Oprah should have been given a yellow jersey in the aftermath. Or at least one with a big yellow streak running down the middle.
To say that the interview, in the May 2004 edition of the O (for Oprah) magazine, was a soft-soap would be a laugh-out-loud understatement. It wasn’t an exploration of his life and times, it was a retelling of a fairy-tale, a portrayal of Armstrong as a hero of the nation, as the man who looked death in the eye and won, who got back on his bike and won and won and won again. Winfrey had no stomach for the difficult questions.
Even back in 2004 there was so much that linked Armstrong to doping and yet there was no mention of it. He was asked about his cancer, his divorce, his relationship with Sheryl Crow and his fatherless childhood, but there was no mention of his association with Michele Ferrari, the notorious doping doctor, even though it had been known for three years at that point that Armstrong had been working with Ferrari. No mention of the testimony of other riders who had long since cast doubt on Armstrong, no mention of anything to do with drugs, which was an unforgivable sin of omission.
At one stage of that interview, Armstrong said his attitude to anything – even Scrabble – was one of “win at all costs” and yet Winfrey never followed up that statement with the most obvious question in the world: “What do you mean by ‘win at all costs?’” Winfrey let it pass. Maybe there was a prior arrangement that she would not ask him about doping in cycling and the specific allegations that had already been made against him. Instead she bought the fantasy. “Tell me about your tolerance for pain?” she asked. “How do you ride through the pain?”
He lied and lied and lied again and Oprah sat there and gushed like so many others sat there and gushed. Now she has a second chance, come next Thursday. Since the New York Times reported last weekend that Armstrong was ready to admit his industrial-scale cheating there has been speculation as to the where and when of his supposed confession. Winfrey was the obvious platform. A gargantuan audience across the planet and a previously sympathetic cheerleader sitting opposite him, one with a track record of going softly on athletes in disgrace.
Winfrey’s interview with Marion Jones upon her release from prison for lying to government prosecutors over her use of banned drugs has gone down in the annals. Jones was allowed to get away with the risible assertion that she didn’t knowingly dope. Between sobs, Jones said she thought she was taking legal vitamins and supplements. She also said that, even if she hadn’t cheated she’d have won anyway, such was her natural talent. Having seen that argument go unchallenged with Jones, Armstrong might try it himself next week. “Yes, I took drugs, but only to level the playing field. I’d have still won without them.” This is the defence that has been deployed on his behalf by his deluded cheerleaders.
The promotional people on the Oprah Winfrey Network are promising a “no-holds-barred” interview – which sounds promising – about the “alleged doping scandal” – which sounds less than promising. There is nothing “alleged” about this scandal. Armstrong has been found guilty. He has lost his titles and his reputation. Sponsors have deserted him. Many of those who once saw him as an icon, now view him as the greatest cheat that sport has ever known. The only thing we want to hear from Armstrong now is a full confession and a full apology to those he has attacked over the years; his fellow riders and ex-riders, colleagues, former friends and the small group of cycling journalists who had the honesty and bravery to chase the story and in return got threatened and sued, people like David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, who spent years of their careers in pursuit of Armstrong because they knew he was a liar and a cheat.
We want the apology, but we also want information. If he is to take the first step down the road to recovery then Armstrong needs to tell all. He needs to out the team bosses and team doctors who helped him dope, just as Tyler Hamilton did last year with the publication of a book that documented his own cheating.
Armstrong needs to say how it happened, when it happened and how he managed to pass so many drugs tests – but not all drugs tests – in his career. He needs to talk about his relationship with the UCI, the governing body who stand accused of protecting him in his doping. Do we expect Armstrong to do all of this? Frankly, it’s hard to imagine. All that we know about Armstrong tells us that he is a man in denial, a man with a twisted logic that says “everyone was doing it, but I did it better than everyone else”.
Yesterday, Kathy LeMond, wife of the Tour de France winner Greg, went on Twitter with a special message for Winfrey. “@Oprah I hope you get educated before the interview. I know people that can help you.” LeMond was speaking for all those who harbour a dread about Thursday’s “no-holds-barred” piece falling short of what it ought to be.
Will Winfrey seek to speak with Tyler Hamilton and all those other members of Armstrong’s US Postal team who have confessed to doping and who have, in some cases, spoken in minute detail about what they did and what Armstrong did alongside them? Will she speak to other riders who have gone public about Armstrong? Will she speak to the journalists who have investigated him for 13 years? Will she speak to those who know his story and would only be too happy to give her the benefit of their insight?
A good starting point would be Travis Tygart, the head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency – the man who finally brought Armstrong down. USADA’s October report on Armstrong and the culture of professional road racing during his golden years is jaw-dropping and indisputable. You’d hope that Winfrey will have devoured it before she ever sits down with the man at the heart of it.
All she can do is ask the right questions. The rest is up to Armstrong. His one-time friend and team-mate, Hamilton, says that, when he told the truth about his own career, he felt free for the first time in many years. Over the past months he has encouraged Armstrong to admit everything or spend the rest of his life haunted by lies. Thursday is the chance and the judgment is simple. Full disclosure or nothing. Anything bar a total admission of what he did, how he did it and who helped him do it is just a waste of everybody’s time. Don’t hold your breath.